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WNC Afield: A rough and rocky road, but well worth the climb

WNC Afield: A rough and rocky road, but well worth the climb

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When the Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964, Linville Gorge became one of the first to be formally designated as a “Wilderness Area.”

The river flowing through the gorge was called Ee-see-oh in the Cherokee language which means, “river of many cliffs.”

If you take this adventure, no further explanation will be needed.

In 1766, a father-and-son team of explorers met their fate when, while in the gorge, they were caught and scalped by the Shawnee. Their names were John and William Linville. Settlers of the time honored them by giving their name to the area.

Linville Mountain sits on the western side of the gorge and the rugged peaks of the Jonas Ridge form the eastern wall. At the south end of the wall sits one of the more prominent peaks called Short Off Mountain. Short Off is not as high as Table Rock or Hawk’s Bill, to the north, but as you hike this one, I doubt you will be complaining about the lack of elevation to gain.

Short Off Mountain Trail

Difficulty: Moderate incline but the rocks can take a toll on ankles and knees. Foot placement on the trail makes it a little more technical than many hikes.

Shoes: I saw about every variety of shoe you can imagine short of high heels. I also saw one nicely swollen ankle in the parking area. My advice is to wear a good hiking boot or shoe. You will need support on the rocky trail.

Time: I recommend you allow at least four hours. The uphill will take a little time but once you get to the comfortable area at the top, you will want to soak it in.

Distance: To the summit and back is 5.5 miles. The elevation gain is 1,200 feet. It is an out-and-back.

Safety: The incline is moderate. It is always uphill until you get to the turnaround. The rocks make it tricky. Watch your foot placement going up and, even more, on the way back.

The closest restroom facilities I found were at the main trailhead for the Fonta Flora Trail. You will have to visit them before you turn onto Wolf Pit Road.

Of course, water is a must. The day we hiked, the temperature on the trail was in the mid-90s. If you take your dog, be sure to carry plenty of water to share. I know that sounds obvious, but I passed two different groups that had no water for themselves or their dog. This area has the allure of a quick stop and a short, easy walk but this is not a spur-of-the-moment hike. Be prepared.

Courtesy: No bikes or horses are allowed on the trail, but it is extremely well traveled. If you stop for a drink or to admire the view, which you will, stand off the trail so others can pass.

I talked to several hikers on this trail. I’m glad things are loosening a bit because it’s the conversation that helps me evaluate the trail. Almost all considered the hike between moderate and strenuous, mainly because of the rocks.

I was passed by a young woman who was jogging to the top. She smiled and said a pleasant, “Hello.” I nodded. I didn’t have enough air in my lungs to vocalize a reply. She passed me again on the way down. We live in different worlds.

HOW TO GET THERE:

If you use Google Maps, query, “Wolf Pit Trailhead.”

From Marion, head to the Paddy’s Creek area of the Lake James State Park. Continue past the park entrance and remain on N.C. 126. You will go past the Whippoorwill Farm on the right. Then make the curve to the right, still on N.C. 126, and go toward the Fonta Flora Trailhead. Watch for Wolf Pit Road on the left. It comes up fast, so be alert. If you get to the Linville boat ramp, you have gone about a quarter-mile too far (unless you want to go to the restrooms at Fonta Flora).

As you travel along this road, you will get a great view of Short Off Mountain from the comfort of your car. It looks a little intimidating. There is a reason for that.

Follow Wolf Pit Road all the way to the end. The trailhead has an entrance sign. You’ll know it when you get there. Cars will be parked everywhere. Expect to spend about a half-hour if you travel from Marion.

Just a note: Most of you may know that part of the 1992 epic film “The Last of the Mohicans” was filmed at Lake James. A replica of Fort William Henry was constructed for the battle scenes when the French won the fort from the British. It was very close to the Linville boat ramp.

Nothing remains today, but if you watch the movie, you will recognize Short Off in the background.

There is a story that the movie company wanted to use locals as extras in the battle scene. It proved difficult because it seems North Carolina mountain folks don’t know how to surrender.

THE TRAIL:

I can describe this trail with one word: Up. It begins at the sign that designates this as the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. The path is an extremely well-worn, wide, dirt trail that heads uphill. Initially the trail is easy under foot.

In a short distance you will see the rather crude sign on the left that points to the Short Off trail. Take the trail to the right and head for the mountain.

This path has a sandy base. The steepness of the climb is accentuated by the log steps across the path. It will require a good stretch to make each step. Be aware of your knees. The hike is just beginning.

Take advantage of the shade while you are at the lower level. This is a great example of the typical low-level foliage we enjoy in WNC. You might find some Carolina hemlocks, Table Mountain pine, Carolina or purple rhododendron, and sand myrtle as well as a few other unusual plants.

Here’s a little treasure hunt for you. There is a flower, endemic to North Carolina, found only in two counties, Burke and McDowell, i.e., the gorge.

The mountain goldenheather or hudsonia montana is a small shrub with green, needle-like leaves and bright yellow flowers. Likely to be seen in June and July. If you find it, don’t take it home, just get a picture. It’s rare.

Soon, the switchbacks start. You will begin to climb above the smaller shrubs and the views of Lake James will begin to come into the view. The trail begins to get rocky under your feet. Get used to the rocks. They will be around for a while.

A few more turns and the view opens up in a spectacular way. A view to the south includes Lake James, Marion and Morganton. Stop somewhere along the way. A great time for a drink and a few photos.

Another prominent signpost will appear on the left. It will point you to your destination as well as Wolf Pit parking and the Mountains to Sea trail that heads down to the Linville River. From here, it’s a short distance to a different and powerful view of Linville Gorge.

I can’t adequately describe it, but you will certainly know when you arrive at the cliff-side viewpoint. A panorama of the western rim takes you all the way to the north with views of the river below. Off to the west and south are views of McDowell County and more of Lake James. Now, you know why you huffed and puffed for the last hour. Payoff.

From here, it’s just a pleasant stroll to the top of the mountain. Don’t expect more great views, but you will be rewarded with nice greenery and several flat spots to stop for a while.

Rest a while and head home. Take it slowly and watch your footing. There is a lot of history in this canyon. Just for fun, on the way down, stop and look back. Take a moment to let your mind wander and imagine you are a Native American hunting for game, or a white settler exploring the new land. OK. That’s enough. Get on the cell phone and find a place to eat.

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